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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

ISIL defeated - but not a lot else to boast about for Trump

Donald Trump's presidency has been marked by controversy and chaos, but what's arguably most notable is the lack of achievement

US president Donald's Trump's first year in office has been a rollercoaster ride. Evan Vucci / AP
US president Donald's Trump's first year in office has been a rollercoaster ride. Evan Vucci / AP

Resignations, judicial fights, legislative mishaps … the first half-year of the Trump presidency was nothing short of a rollercoaster ride. But behind those headlines lie some recent successes — the tax reform bill and national security strategy — and there is mounting evidence that he has the political agility to escape from crises and the flexibility to change his mind when necessary.

Domestic roller coaster

Resignations, judicial fights, legislative mishaps — the first six months of the Trump presidency was nothing short of a roller-coaster ride and big headlines — often for the wrong reasons.

The early setbacks for the Trump team were marked by the upheaval that followed the first travel ban, the resignation of national security adviser Mike Flynn on February 13, and newly-appointed attorney general Jeff Sessions recusing himself from the investigation into Russia’s role in the US election. A frustrated president went into confrontational mode, firing the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation James Comey in May, only to prompt the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller to oversee the Russia investigation. The one shining moment for Mr Trump in the first half of 2017 was the appointment of conservative judge Neil Gorsuch to the US supreme court.

The infighting within the White House preceding the failure in July to repeal and replace the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (better known as ObamaCare) forced a complete reshuffle in the presidential team. More than 16 senior members of it have resigned since Mr Trump took office, including his chief of staff Reince Priebus and strategist Steve Bannon — who departed in August but appears to still be communicating with the president.

The secretary of Homeland Security, General John Kelly rode to the rescue as the new chief of staff, and since July has tried to reinforce discipline inside the White House.

He reportedly showed the door to campaign aides Sebastian Gorka and most recently Omorosa Manigualt and while the general has succeeded to a degree in controlling who Mr Trump sees and what he reads, he has not been able to subdue the president on Twitter. Mr Trump’s tepid response to the events at the neo-Nazi/white supremacists' rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August, and his online spat with the National Football League have exacerbated racial divisions. The president further fuelled those tensions with his reaction to hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, and his Twitter attacks on the island's capital, San Juan.

A Pew poll in mid December showed that 60 per cent of Americans believe Mr Trump’s election has led to worse race relations in the US. A mere eight per cent say race relation are better, while 30 per cent say it has not made a difference.

Domestically, the end of the year had few bright spots for Mr Trump. The tax reform bill passed through Congress, an unprecedented number of judicial appointments were confirmed and the economy was looking robust. That, at least, is what the White House wanted to play up. But for Republicans, losing the races for governor of New Jersey and Virginia, followed by the defeat in Alabama for the senate seat, has set alarms ringing within the party. As Mr Trump’s popularity falls to a historic low of 35 per cent (CNN poll), Republicans could lose their majority in the House next November. Fifty per cent of registered voters say they prefer a Democratic-controlled Congress, versus 39 per cent who want Republicans in charge, according to poll for NBC and The Wall Street Journal this month.

On top of it all hovers the Russia cloud and the Mueller investigation, which shows every sign of intensifying following the indictment of former campaign manager Paul Manafort and aide Rick Gates — not to mention the co-operation with the investigators of Mike Flynn and former aide George Papadopoulos. While the White House is pushing for the investigation to be wrapped up soon, Mr Manafort and Mr Gates are not due to go on trial until May.

Middle East: not Obama

In the Middle East, Mr Trump's policy seems to be to prove he is not Barack Obama. From enforcing a travel ban, pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), carrying out air strikes against the Assad regime, keeping the Guantanamo detention camp open, pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, decertifying the Iran nuclear deal, restricting travel to Cuba and recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, he has been resolute in reversing his predecessor's actions.

The state department highlights the flushing out of ISIL from most of Iraq and key areas in Syria as a great accomplishment. President Trump was also on a mission to mend strained relations with Middle East allies, visiting Saudi Arabia and Israel in May and welcoming the leaders of the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Kuwait, Bahrain, Lebanon and Iraq, among others, to the White House. The release of the national security strategy (NSS) later in the year spelt out the priorities for the administration around a more centrist approach for the region, with three goals.

The first is to prevent it from becoming “a safe haven or breeding ground for terrorists”; the second aim is to prevent any power hostile to the US from becoming dominant and thirdly, to ensure it contributes to a stable global energy market.

Avoiding failed states and supporting regimes, even if they’re autocratic, is another key theme both in the NSS and in Mr Trump’s approach. While the document shows support for economic reforms in the region, it does not stress human rights or democratic reforms — a departure from the Obama and Bush approaches to the region.

One constant in the Trump presidency this year has been its staunch pro-Israel record. In February, the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, blocked the appointment of the former Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad as UN envoy to Libya, and the year concluded with the US vetoing (via Ms Haley) the call for Mr Trump to reverse his decision on Jerusalem.

The NSS makes no mention of the two-state solution, and the priorities of countering Iran, fighting terrorism, and missile defence have replaced the traditional themes. “Israel is not the cause of the region’s problems," document reads. But any peace efforts — including those by Mr Trump's adviser (and son-in-law) Jared Kushner — are now frozen in their tracks, because of the Jerusalem decision. Vice president Mike Pence has delayed his trip to the Middle East until mid January, and his meetings with religious leaders and the Palestinian authority have been cancelled.

The divide within the Trump administration on Middle East policy became evident with the Qatar crisis and the Iran nuclear deal decisions. On the one hand, there was secretary of state Rex Tillerson advocating diplomacy with Doha. On the other, there was the president telling Qatar to “stop funding of terrorism”. Mr Tillerson and defence secretary James Mattis were also said to be against decertifying the Iran nuclear deal. Mr Tillerson also opposed recognising Jerusalem as capital of Israel.

His stated positions and the reports of him allegedly calling the president — his boss — "a moron" have left the secretary of state isolated within the administration, and he is hotly tipped to resign early next year, with CIA director Mike Pompeo replacing him. Deputy national security adviser Dina Habib Powell has already said she is leaving in February.

When he began his campaign for the presidency in 2015, Mr Trump — a real estate mogul and former TV celebrity — did not expect to win. His record so far on new legislation is very thin and his approval ratings are low. Beyond restoring old alliances, his administration has little to boast about in Middle East, as regional divisions have deepened and the peace process all but died after the Jerusalem decision.

On Iran, apart from the tough rhetoric and imposing unilateral sanctions, the Trump team has neither managed to reach agreement with Congress on the fate of the nuclear deal, nor force a change in Tehran’s conduct as Iran's proxies extend their reach in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

True, the military defeat of ISIL is a considerable achievement, but one accomplished largely by intensifying president Obama's strategy.

All of the above amount to troubling signs for the Republicans as they head to midterms election next November. Meanwhile President Trump, as is his wont, will no doubt hail 2017 as a year of astonishing personal success in every sphere. But he may well be the only one to believe it.

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Read more:

Year in Review: Populism was on the march in 2017

Syria year in review: Assad fixes his place as outside powers pursue their agendas

Lebanon year in review: Is the country a failed state?

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